Tolstoy’s Children’s Tales

It appears there is a very good reason children’s authors are seldom known for their literary greatness on the basis of this collection of Leo Tolstoy’s children’s tales.

“Daddy,” my stunned four-year-old son asked, “why did the lion die?” I took the book away and hid it from the children. Later I read it through. If you do this, be sure to read something lighter afterward, like perhaps Anna Karenina’s suicide scene, or a biography of Sylvia Plath. The rest of the stories are just as dark as the first one. So we have:

“Escape of a Dancing Bear.” The bear runs away after the master gets drunk. He’s too strong to capture directly, so they play his dancing music and he dances again. This allows the keepers to grab onto his chain. “The bear saw the ruse too late, roared helplessly, and tried to escape. But the master clung on tightly.” The end.

“Death of a Bird-Cherry Tree.” A property owner orders a tree cut down, then reconsiders. “It seemed a shame to kill such a beautiful thing.” But the woodcutter has already started, so he takes up an axe and lends a hand. “And then an unnerving sound came from inside the very soul of that tree. It was as if someone was screaming in unbearable pain, a tearing, wrenching, long, drawn-out scream.” The woodcutter says, “Whew, she don’t die easy, Sir!” Then the tree falls. The end.

“The King and the Shirt.” A king falls sick and is told that the only thing that can cure him is the shirt of a happy man. They can’t find anyone in the kingdom who is happy. Then by chance, the king’s counselor is passing through the woods and hears a man in a hut talking about how happy he is. The counselor steps into the hut and asks the man for his shirt, but the man is so poor he does not own a single shirt. The end. Presumably, the king dies.

“The Old Poplar.” Remember “Death of a Bird-Cherry Tree”? Well, this time it’s an old poplar. The owner wants to clear out the young poplar sprouts beneath a beautiful tree so that the old tree has less competition. The shoots had, in fact, been supporting the old tree; without them it withers and dies. “In wanting to make life easier for it I had killed all its children.” The end.

“The Little Bird.” A boy catches a bird in a cage. His mother says he shouldn’t do that. He leaves the door of the cage open. The bird flies out, straight into a glass window, knocking itself out. It suffers for a few days, then dies. The end.

I have to admit, I did laugh out loud reading this. It just sounds relentlessly horrible and almost flawlessly inappropriate. After giving the matter considerably more contemplation than I’d like to admit, I came up with a list of authors whose work should never, ever appear in the children’s section. In reverse order:

  • Leo Tolstoy. A man whose literary greatness apparently knew no bounds, although it should have.
  • Guy de Maupassant. Forget all the drugs and ritual abuse, if MK Ultra wants to traumatize children, his story about the horse would suffice. It’s the only story that has ever left me in a state of existential despair after reading it.
  • Jim Nelson. Wildly unpopular.
  • H.P. Lovecraft. Although the idea of combining Hogwarts and Lovecraft at Arkham Academy has occurred to me and other game designers over the years. The feeder school, presumably, for Miskatonic University.
  • Samuel R. Delaney. For obvious reasons.